Stirring in the undergrowth of the ‘think-tank’ world is a new consensus – that the sad plight of many northern towns is a direct result of the success of nearby regional cities. Let’s be clear. This is the wrong debate with the wrong conclusions at precisely the wrong time.
Firstly, the actual ‘success’ of our cities is very questionable in a European context. All our regional capitals have lower rates of investment and GDP per head than their European rivals. And it’s not just a matter of statistics. Toulouse, with an equivalent population to Leeds, has a functional and integrated tram and rail system than would make the leaders of that fine Yorkshire city weep. Outside their shiny city centres many of our cities have the same problems of abandonment and poor educational achievements associated with other urban areas. As a former resident of Miles Platting in North Manchester I can assure you that you will seek a skinny cappuccino in vain.
Smaller towns in the North and Midlands are having a hard time but that’s the result of decades of de-industrialisation. Moreover, the closure of many public institutions and reduction in public spending in this decade of austerity has ripped the heart out of many town centres. What’s needed is a ruthless and determined effort to erase the centuries of centralised policy-making in this country. This is the root cause of such economic and social decline which any Brexit will worsen.
In the modern world local city leaders know that they need to support regional centres of excellence where innovation and talent can cluster around universities, transport hubs and each other. Smart towns such as Bury and Oldham understand this and work hard to make themselves competitive in terms of good housing, education and transport links to attract aspirational families looking for a better quality of life and new business.
The real worry is that the current false debate will weaken the growth of vibrant city regions just at the time when major political battles over bus/rail franchises and regional investment are emerging.
The bright lights of cities have always attracted the young across the world. We should celebrate that this now includes - amongst others - Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham as well as London.
Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics